I have several pet peeves. Fortunately, I also have a newspaper column (at least for now). Which means that, unless and until my editors prevent me, I can sound off on things that bother me from time to time.
One of them is the frequent misuse of the word “literally.” Have you ever noticed how common it is for English-speakers to use the word “literally” when they actually mean exactly the opposite of “literally”? “I’m so hungry, I could literally eat a horse.” “That guy on the other team was literally 10 feet tall.” Or this one, presumably recorded from a conversation in the spirit world: “I literally died from embarrassment.”
But such quirky expressions aren’t the focus of this column. Instead, I have a different pet peeve in mind, though it’s still a linguistic one.
In Latter-day Saint circles (and perhaps beyond), it’s long since become customary for a husband to praise his wife as a “helpmeet.” However, since most of us find that term just a bit puzzling — intuitively, I suspect, we know that it makes no real sense — we sometimes change the word to “helpmate,” which, unlike “helpmeet,” is actually comprehensible.
The term “helpmeet” is derived from the King James rendition of Genesis 2:18, where God decides to provide a companion for the newly created man, Adam: “And the Lord God said, it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.”
However, it’s important here to note that “help meet” in the KJV is two words, not one. This is not only a hint as to how we ought to read it aloud, but a clue about what the passage means. We should already be familiar with such King James language from other biblical passages. In Acts 26:20, for instance, we see Paul telling the Gentiles that “they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.” (Thankfully, we don’t call righteous deeds “worksmeets.”) It should be obvious from the context that “meet,” in this verse, means something like “worthy,” “befitting” or “appropriate.” (And that is, precisely, what the underlying Greek and Hebrew words do mean.)
It’s hardly surprising, in this light, to see how other translations render Genesis 2:18: The New International Version, for example, reads “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (I certainly hope that Mormon husbands won’t start calling their wives “helpersuitables” anytime soon!)
The very next verse launches into an amusing little story — amusing when it’s properly understood, and when it’s seen in its larger context — about the quest to find a suitable companion for Adam:
“And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him” (Genesis 2:19-20).
It turns out that tigers, ostriches and bears (or perhaps velociraptors, trilobites and pterodactyls) aren’t appropriate companions for men. But directly after the failure of this little parade of the animals to supply a proper companion for Adam, to provide a creature who could pass audition before Adam and the Lord, God creates Eve, who instantly wins the man’s complete approval. (He was probably quite relieved.) She also receives a name from him, thus continuing the story of the beasts and their naming but, this time, bringing it to a successful conclusion: “And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Genesis 2:23).
There is, in other words, no “helpmeet” in the scriptures. There is, instead, a “help” who is specially suited to be “meet” for her husband, who was created to complete him in a way that nothing else in creation, whether animate or inanimate, properly can.
Likewise, the husband is “meet” for her, although he was plainly not appropriate as a companion for tortoises, kangaroos and warthogs.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, edits BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs http://www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.